Hope Died With Chechen Rebel Leader

Rajan Menon teaches international relations at Lehigh University and is a fellow at the New American Foundation.

The Kremlin hasn’t had much good news from Chechnya lately. That changed when Aslan Maskhadov, the nominal leader of the Chechen resistance, was killed March 8 during an encounter with Russian military units. President Vladimir V. Putin’s government was jubilant.

Yet Maskhadov’s death won’t help free Russia from the Chechen quagmire. Indeed, the future promises to be like the abysmal present -- for Moscow, which is fighting a fruitless war; for ordinary Chechens, tens of thousands of whom have been killed, brutalized or turned into refugees; and for Russian civilians, victims of the pitiless terrorism perpetrated by Chechen extremists.

In fact, the Kremlin may regret the death of Maskhadov someday. Unlike die-hard Chechen separatist Shamil Basayev, who truly is a terrorist and a militant Islamist, Maskhadov was someone Russia could work with. He wanted a secular state, not an Islamist state, and he repeatedly offered to negotiate an end to the war and to accept autonomy for Chechnya within the Russian Federation, rather than insisting on absolute independence.

Putin tried doggedly to link Maskhadov to the most gruesome acts of Chechen terrorism, in particular the seizure of Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater in 2002 and the school debacle in Beslan last fall, and to Al Qaeda. Yet not a shred of evidence could be found connecting Maskhadov to these atrocities (which he condemned), and all there is to the Al Qaeda charge is post-9/11 Kremlin spin that lamely presents the conflict as terrorism and ignores the long history of anti-Russian Chechen nationalism.


With Maskhadov gone, Basayev and his ilk -- cold-eyed devotees of the gun and the bomb -- are strengthened. An early sign of this is the emergence of Islamist Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev as Maskhadov’s successor as the public face of the Chechen rebellion. Chechen extremists and the militant Islamists will invoke Maskhadov’s death as proof that hopes for a deal with Moscow amount to delusion.

Maskhadov certainly had his flaws. Though his masterful military leadership during the 1994-1996 war forced Russia to negotiate an autonomy agreement and withdraw its battered troops, his tenure as Chechnya’s president from 1997 to 1999 -- he won 60% in a vote that international observers declared was fair -- was a disaster. He bears heavy responsibility for the suffering Chechens have endured since that brief period of hope.

Anarchy soon displaced optimism in Chechnya under Maskhadov’s government. Gangsters, kidnappers, warlords and foreign Islamist militants operated with impunity. Maskhadov could not maintain order, let alone improve the economic lot of Chechens. True, Russia reneged on promises to deliver money and material for reconstruction. But had Maskhadov built a functioning Chechen government, Putin would arguably have been unable to launch the second Chechen war in 1999, install a government and force the rebels underground.

That war has thrust Chechens into a cruel wilderness. Tens of thousands of people have been driven from their homeland. Many others have been killed in Russian military operations that pay scant heed to civilian lives. Others have vanished in the sweeps that Russian forces mount through Chechen villages. There are also documented Russian abuses like torture and rape.


Yet for all his limitations, Maskhadov was the one man with whom Russia might have talked to end its futile war. And only a political solution can stop the bloodletting.

Russia is therefore fated to continue a war that will consume ever more blood and treasure, a war that is spreading chaos to the rest of the North Caucasus and contributing to the erosion of Russian democracy.

Maskhadov’s death will not cripple the Chechen resistance, a gaggle of decentralized guerrilla units more and more dominated by radicals. They will continue to embrace a two-part strategy, conducting a guerrilla war to tie down Russian forces and a terrorist campaign in Russia aimed at turning its citizens against Putin’s Chechnya policies. Chechen extremists will not change course because Maskhadov has been killed. They will perpetrate more chilling acts of terror, some of which will doubtless be proclaimed as vengeance for Maskhadov. Having derided him as naive while he lived, they will now enshrine him as a martyr.

When Maskhadov was alive, the Kremlin dismissed him as irrelevant. But it is instead his death that will prove of no consequence because, without the alternative he embodied, Chechnya will remain the scene of a heartless war, and Russia will witness more terrorism. Helpless Chechens and Russians will be the principal victims.